It's Road Trip Season. 5 Ways to Cut Your Costs

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  • Planning your pit stops and hotel stays ahead of time can give you the opportunity to budget for costs and capitalize on loyalty programs.
  • Bringing a cooler (even just to hold drinks like bottled water) can save you money on food.
  • It's much better to pay for a car tune-up before you leave than to pay for an emergency repair en route.

Road trips are my favorite kind of vacation. Here are some tried-and-true money-saving tips I've used for years for road trips in both the United States and Canada.

1. Figure out your pit stops ahead of time

This is a more recent addition to my road trip arsenal, but it's been such a help for both my checking account and my mental health. When you've got a long day of driving planned (say, eight to 12 hours), it can be easy to get lost in that big number and feel as if you'll never reach your destination. Here's the secret: When you're planning your route, decide on places to stop along the way, ideally aiming for a break about every two hours. This way, you're never more than two hours from a bathroom, the chance to stretch your legs, or a bite to eat.

This will help you save money by giving you the chance to plan for cheaper stops. If you wait until everyone in the car is starving before looking for a place to have lunch, you won't take the time to compare the menu prices of multiple restaurants. If you know you have $60 to spend on lunch for you and three family members, you can find a fast food joint that will help you stick to that and add it as a stop on your route.

2. Pack your cooler

Another way to save on those drinks, snacks, and meals along the way is to rely on your trusty cooler and a few bags of ice. You can make sandwiches at home and have them ready whenever anyone needs a quick bite. If this is a bit too thrifty for your tastes, consider this: Even only using the cooler for drinks can result in a lot of savings. I can buy a 24-pack of bottled water at my local grocery store for just $4.79. Just $0.20 per bottle sounds a lot better than gas station prices that could be 10 times that.

3. Book the right hotels/motels -- BEFORE you leave

Going along with the first tip, I also highly recommend planning where you'll sleep ahead of time. My most frequent road trip companion these days prefers the school of "drive until we're tired, THEN find a place to sleep," but that's against everything I stand for. My motto? Be prepared.

By booking before you leave, you get a set destination (and number of miles to cover). I usually choose a hotel with a loyalty program I belong to, earning me points to redeem for future stays. Plus, I can check rates for hotels in a set area and pick the one offering the best combination of price and amenities.

4. Use the right credit card for fill-ups

The right credit card can earn you cash back and other rewards on your regular spending, and this is absolutely the case for road trips, too. I'd actually warn against opting for a co-branded card for a major gas station brand because these are sometimes "closed loop," meaning you can only use them at that type of gas station. And you can usually earn better rewards with a credit card that offers a high rate of return on gas purchases anyway.

If you've got a spring or summer road trip planned, note that per the U.S. Energy Information Administration, gas prices are up at this time of year. So any bit of money back you can get for buying cash will surely help.

5. Get your car tuned up

While you might be groaning at the prospect of spending yet more money on your road trip, it's crucial to ensure the vehicle you'll be taking is in good shape before you leave. Jiffy Lube notes that a full tune-up will likely cost you between $200 and $800, depending on your vehicle and where you live. But it would be nice to know ahead of time if something might be wrong with your car.

Depending on the problem with your vehicle and its age, any repairs you might need could be covered under warranty. But even if they're not, do you really want to have to find a repair shop in a hurry while you're away from home?

In addition to checking out the engine, ensure your tires get some special attention. The tires are the only part of the car that touches the road, and you want them to have good tread and be properly inflated for your trip. I actually just dumped another $650 into my old car for new tires because I have a road trip vacation coming up soon, and it was time for new tires anyway.

Road trips are fun, and they can certainly be cheaper (especially if you're traveling with a group) and often less stressful than flying. Use the above tips to shave your costs even more and remember to drive safe!

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